I love drag. I wrote a book about it. And I love to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race because it’s fun and queer and dazzling and fun. And queer.
But not all queer and fun things are perfect, and Drag Race—like RuPaul herself—is no exception. There’s been the issue with RuPaul not fully welcoming trans performers or drag kings on the show. There’s been the issue with how more popular queens (the ones that do the best) are predominately White. There’s been the issue with how Drag Race tends to takes ritualistic and creative elements from underground and minority drag culture without credit, often transforming them into products that are both spectacle-like and devoid of their full cultural meaning (thanks bell hooks for the ritual vs spectacle framing!)
So I watched and coded seven seasons of Drag Race and then I wrote an article about how Drag Race uses “realness,” a term taken from ballroom culture. Ballroom is a performance scene designed and maintained mainly by poor queer people of Color. Check Paris is Burning for dets, or better yet the amazing Butch Queens up in Pumps by Marlon Bailey, or the already legendary FX series Pose). In the ballroom scene, realness names a very specific form of performance (appearing cisgender and heterosexual within the schema of class and race denoted by the category). It’s a term that speaks to the lived experiences of ballroom members within our heteronormative, capitalistic, White-centered world, and it’s also a term that identifies a form of agency ballroom members deploy to blend and thus protect themselves in hostile public areas.
On Drag Race, realness is none of those things. Its a piece of candy, a term that’s fun to say and identifies the fabulousness or success or outlandishness or cleverness of a particular lewk. Queens speak of doing “baby bear realness” (s7, ep6) when their outfit successfully makes them look like they were mauled to death, or “skunk Cinderella realness” (s6, ep7) to note the fierceness of their stripy-hair-and-ballroom-dress ensemble. Oh I got others:
- Alien robotic venereal disease realness (s9, ep9)
- Dead dog realness (s6, ep7)
- X-men weird angel devil realness (s9, ep4)
- Punk unicorn realness (s8, ep3)
- eskimo style yeti ski fish realness (s10, ep4)
- That’s my mama realness (s8, ep8)
- Carnival pregnancy realness (s4, ep10)
- real lion taming realness (s5, ep2)
- Helen Keller drowning realness (no idea) (s5, ep1)
Realness is a bit of fun on Drag Race. But also Drag Race is a mass commercial product and rating powerhouse. And when the show uses realness with the frequency it does (in about 62% the episodes in a given season), its appropriating something from a minority subculture without credit, then commodifying it into a sellable product sans the meaning that’s so significant to the community that created the term.
I love Drag Race, maybe you do too. But if we continue to love it, we’ll have to do so with our eyes wide open. Check my article, “RuPaul Realness: The Neoliberal Resignifcation of Ballroom Discourse” here in Social Semiotics if you or your university has access to Taylor & Francis journal publications, or contact me personally if you don’t.
And remember, if you can’t love [analyzing things that are entertaining to] yourself, how in the hell you gonna [be critical of when people] love anything else.